It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Monday morning. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
Today, the battle over illegal immigration reaches a Pennsylvania courtroom. An ordinance passed last year by the city of Hazleton, Pennsylvania goes on trial. It penalizes employers who hire undocumented immigrants and fines landlords who rent to them. But the American Civil Liberties Union says only the federal government can regulate immigration matters.
NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta says the mountaintop town of 30,000 where he grew up was an idyllic slice of America: seniors sitting on porches, kids frolicking in playgrounds. An economic revival in the past decade attracted an increasing number of immigrants: Mexican, Dominicans and Central Americans. Some credit them with helping save the city from bankruptcy, but Barletta says he began to realize last year, that the new population included illegal immigrants who've brought unwanted change.
Mayor LOU BARLETTA (Hazleton, Pennsylvania): More and more violent crimes were being committed. More and more drug dealers were being arrested. And more and more times, it involves illegal aliens. We realized we were having a problem, for some reason, in Hazleton with illegal immigration.
LUDDEN: Barletta's law to crackdown on that has made him a national figure. At a recent panel in Washington, D.C., he propped up a poster full of local newspaper headlines of shootings and other crimes, with photos of Hispanics in handcuffs. Barletta says dealing with undocumented suspects - who may have multiple identities to sort through - is time-consuming and expensive for his small police department, and there are other costs.
Mayor BARLETTA: Our school district in the year 2000, English has the second language. The budget was $500. In 2006, that budget is $1,145,000.
LUDDEN: Barletta says his ordinance aims to drive the illegal population from Hazleton. So far, the court has blocked the law from taking effect, but that doesn't seem to matter.
Mr. RUDY ESPINAL (President, Hazleton's Hispanic Business Administration): People left, intimidated by the environment that this law created.
LUDDEN: Rudy Espinal heads Hazleton's Hispanic Business Administration. He says even legal immigrants have felt under attack.
Mr. ESPINAL: And you can see business closing their doors now. Some people were thinking about expanding their businesses, and now they're thinking about surviving in their business.
Mr. OMAR JADWAT (Staff Counsel, ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project): What's happening is we have the city encouraging people, almost requiring people, to discriminate.
LUDDEN: Omar Jadwat of the ACLU says employers and landlords have no training in how to determine whether an immigrant is legal. So, if Hazleton's law took effect, he says, they'd likely avoid hiring or renting to anyone with dark skin or an accent. Jadwat also calls the law pernicious, because it's based on complaints that could come from anyone: neighbors, co-workers, complete strangers. But Kris Kobach says there is a safeguard. He is the main lawyer for Hazleton and a former advisor on immigration to Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Mr. KRIS KOBACH (Lawyer, Hazleton): No complaint can be based on a person's race, ethnicity or national origin. So, if a complaint attempts to target someone, the complaint has to be thrown out completely even if the individual actually was illegal.
LUDDEN: Aside from such constitutional issues, Vic Walczak of the Pennsylvania State ACLU says Hazleton's claims about the need for the ordinance are unfounded.
Mr. VIC WALCZAK (Legal Director, ACLU, Pennsylvania State Pennsylvania): We think that the evidence is going to show that, in fact, illegal immigrants have not created this epic tidal wave of crime, that they are not bankrupting the schools and the health care systems, and frankly, that Mayor Barletta has exaggerated the problems with illegal immigrants in the city of Hazleton.
LUDDEN: Both sides say they are prepared to appeal this case all the way to the Supreme Court. To help Hazleton pay for that, Mayor Barletta has set up a legal defense fund and says it's raised over $100,000 so far.
Mayor BARLETTA: I had a veteran send me $7, a $5-bill and two $1 bills, and tell me that this is everything I have in my wallet, Mayor. Don't quit fighting. You're fighting for all of us. And I realize, we are.
LUDDEN: Dozens of towns across the country say they may follow Mayor Barletta's lead if his anti-illegal immigration act stands up in court.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.
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